Monday, January 21, 2008

The Headscarf Debate: AKP and MHP Agree to Work Together

The past week has once again put the issue of headscarves at the forefront of Turkey's political agenda. Before midnight this last Thursday, it was announced that AKP and MHP had come to an agreement to work together so as to assure that parliamentary action would soon be taken to lift the ban. Details as to how this will happen are still developing, but needless to say, the move signifies an important development in Turkish politics and one that is likely to antagonize the political establishment to which AKP is seen opposed.

Watching the story break, it was hard not to be caught by the enthusiasm of the Turkish pundits offering commentary. In Turkey, women are forbidden to wear the headscarf while on a public university campus. Since two-thirds of women in Turkey wear the garment, the rule has effectively denied education to a large number of women who aspire to a university education. Some headscarved women do enter university, but are forced to stuff their scarves in their purses before entering university gates and oftentimes don a cap or wig in substitution of the disallowed scarf. The issue is one that promises a great amount of vitriol to be spewed from both sides of the dialogue—in particular from those who will inevitably come to see the state's secular values as under direct attack from AKP. For them, this will surely mean that the Islamic agenda they suspected all along has finally revealed itself.

For those who are outside the issue, the headscarf polemic is difficult to get a grasp on. In the United States, for example, it is hard to comprehend how the government can prohibit women from wearing articles of clothing they might feel compelled to wear for personal, religious, or cultural reasons. Few people think twice about a Muslim woman donning a headscarf in a public place and no serious move of which I am aware has ever been made to prohibit this right in the public arena. It is basically a non-issue. This said, it should be noted that the issue is by no means exceptional to Turkish politics, but has rather been important in other countries as well: France bans the headscarf in public schools (and all other "overtly religious" clothing and/or symbols) and even conservative Kuwait struggled with the issue of allowing women to wear the niqab in science classrooms (for safety reasons). In Turkey, the headscarf is of particular importance insomuch as it has come to be seen by many as a political symbol of Islam. Those who wear it are often seen as agents of Islam who are challenging the state's secular value scheme as laid out at its founding by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. More than anything else, it is this symbolic attachment that some people place on the headscarf that makes it such an explosive issue.

The headscarf issue is interesting in that its very presence in Turkish politics nicely illustrates the dynamic between Turkey's strict secular establishment and its more religiously conservative silent majority. A poll published last June in the Turkish left-wing daily Radikal found a majority of Turkey's populace to be in favor of lifting the headscarf ban. In many ways, Turkey's politics since its transition to multi-party democracy have been the story of opposition parties attempting to represent what might be called this silent majority or trying to curry favor with it.

To begin to understand the origins of the secular establishment to which I have been alluding, it is useful to turn to the Turkish state's origins. Founded in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish state moved quickly to establish itself as a modernizing force. Atatürk, very much influenced by the Young Turk ideology the formation of which he was a part, believed secularism to be a crucial pillar to any such movement forward. The first years of Turkey's political history brought a great number of Western reforms, including revision of the Turkish language from an Arab script to a Roman one, sartorial reform that included the elimination of the fez that was viewed as a symbol of the Ottoman Empire's Islamic past, the suppression of Muslim brotherhoods/dervish orders (tarikats), and most importantly, the enshrinement of secular politics following the elimination of the old Ottoman Caliphate. A secular, republican state intent to pursue political development along Western lines and in strict accordance with the nation-state model, Turkey's political heritage is very much rooted in these early days of the Republic. A single-party state until 1945 (CHP is in name an inheritor of this first party), Turkey's troubled transition to democracy and the military's constant interventions in the name of preserving its "secular democratic politics" is very much a story of Turkey's secular established elite (often self-identified as Kemalists) and various conflicts emerging within and outside of this elite. The most significant element from outside the elite are parties—some which have been identified as Islamist—that claim to represent the majority of Turks' more religiously conservative attitudes. As there are a great deal of significant divides and past conflicts within those who identify themselves as Kemalists and as the tale of Turkish politics is about much more than a clash between secular and religious values, this account is necessarily over-simplified for purposes of introduction. However, it is important to grasp before coming to terms with the history of the headscarf.

The history of the headscarf issue is a long and complicated one, but its root lies in the confrontation that came to fruition during what has come to be known as the 'post-modern coup' of 1997. Soon after RP was disbanded, Turkey's Constitutional Court, a long-time stalwart institution of the Kemalist secular guard, ruled that the headscarf was illegal. The Court's statement appeared in its ruling to disband RP as a political party. The judges reasoned that insomuch as the headscarf had been determined to be illegal under previous decisions of the Constitutional Court (although there has never been any specific law banning he headscarf and despite the fact that these decisions were never enforced) and insofar as RP encouraged women to wear the headscarf in universities, they had encouraged illegal activity. Although this was not the only reason to disband the RP, it did figure into the Court's decision and reinforced the link in the minds of the Turkish public that the headscarf was connected to political Islam. Soon after the decision, the military proclaimed that a formal ban should be established and university rectors duly issued a formal proclamation banning the headscarf in all public universities.

To give some brief background of the context in which the issue emerged in 1997, it is necessary to understand what was happening inside Turkey in the 1980s. As mentioned in yesterday's introduction, the primary concern of the military following the 1980 coup was to dissolve leftist opposition. Paying little attention to what the establishment would later see as a Kemalist threat, the military largely left observant Muslims alone. As economic prosperity brought more and more conservative Muslims to the populated coastal cities of the West and as many of these more conservative Muslims began to make their way into the middle class, they soon found themselves as neighbors to, working beside, and attending university with members of Turkey's established Kemalist class. The headscarf was frequently worn by more observant women when they went off to university and amidst insecurity about its legal status, attempts started to be made to assure its legality.

Despite lacking the fanfare the polemic receives today, there were restrictions the military put in place following the coup that forbade female primary and lise (high school) students to cover their heads. Passed in a series of comprehensive orders that regulated all sorts of things in the first years following the coup, the restrictions were paid little heed. Although the headscarf had traditionally been viewed as forbidden, there was no firm law on the matter and, again, the issue was never vested with the amount of importance it is today. The issue of wearing the headscarf in university appeared after 1982 as students were trying to distinguish the türban from the headscarf. Türban is a French word that came into vogue as some female university students were trying to distinguish the two fashions. Although the headscarf had traditionally been viewed as forbidden, there was no firm law on the matter and it was soon argued that the türban was different than its predecessor and should be treated as such. In 1984, the Higher Education Council (Yüksek Öğretim Kurulu—YÖK) ruled that the türban was allowed in universities, but that the traditional headscarf was banned. What is considered a türban, or at least as I am coming to understand it and by today's standards, is a garment worn tighter than the traditional headscarf. The garment covers the neck much more than the loosely-fitting traditional headscarf, but the woman's face remains uncovered. The türban is often worn with a tight band that holds down the woman's hair (almost like a skullcap). There must be a name for this piece of apparel in Turkish, but I have not asked about it and cannot find it online. At any rate, the türban seems much more fashionable than its more traditional counterpart and I am constantly amazed at the various and sundry styles in which it may be worn.

Ironically, the reason asserted was that the türban was more modern and therefore less of a political challenge. The opposite is the case today. Young women donning the türban are seen by their more 'secular' counterparts as particularly pious and often political whereas older women who wear the more traditional headscarf are said to do so for traditional or, it has even been told to me, more purely religious reasons. One of the dynamics that is most fascinating—if not, most disturbing—about these arguments is that they often call the religious sincerity of another into question. I have been told on more than five occasions now that many "covered women" do so for political reasons—they want to make a political point and are not at all motivated by their religion. This argument bothers me on a number of counts, but most significantly by the way that it presumes to make a judgments about anothers' intention without ever engaging that person in dialogue. To make the matter more egregious, it seems to pre-empt dialogue by declaring the other person a nuisance, a "trouble maker" to whom it is not worth talking. I am not quite sure if these statements meant to be as strong as they at times across, but this will no doubt be one of the thing I keep in mind as I continue to follow this issue.

Returning to the history of the headscarf, following the passage of a national law in 1988 to formally legalize the türban, the Constitutional Court made the decision in 1989 to declare the law unconstitutional. The Court interpreted the provisions of secularism in the 1982 Constitution to determine that any law motivated by religious reasons is unconstitutional. Under this strict definition of a secular state, the United States and several other countries would no doubt be theocracies. Although other attempts were made to legalize the türban, none ever successfully challenged the 1989 decision. Notably, a 1990 law legalizing the scarf made its way to the Court, but the case was refused for reasons that the Court had already come to a decision. Throughout the 1990s and up until the military coup, women continued to wear the headscarf, or türban as it had become known, to university.

When AKP was elected in 2002, many pundits proclaimed that the state would be in for another showdown on the headscarf issue. However, AKP focused instead persisted in shoring up its political support and moving forward with much needed economic and EU-inspired political reforms. In 2005, a case made its way to the European Court on Human Rights (ECHR), and much to the disappointment of conservative Muslims who had come to support Europe as a check on state control, the ECHR effectively ruled that the türban ban did not constitute a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights' Article 9 guarantee to "freedom of thought, conscious, and religion." Some conservative Muslims began demanding a state-led renegotiation of secularism that would address the issue once and for all. While AKP has continued to talk of the headscarf as a matter of discrimination against Muslims who observe the practice and a matter of women's rights, little has been done until now to put the matter in front of the Parliament. Much to the disenchantment of some AKP supporters outside of the party's conservative Sunni Muslim base, the wrath of secular Kemalists, and some women's groups who might be constituencies of either of the latter two groups, the AKP constitutional draft released last fall included the right of women to headscarves in university.

Many have thought that AKP would sit on the issue until a full constitutional draft is once again submitted and finally presented to the Parliament for consideration. The proposed alliance with MHP on the issue puts this into question as MHP is known to be very much opposed to many of the other provisions any such future draft is likely to contain (e.g., the document's revision of the strict secularist paradigm ingrained in multiple articles within the 1982 Constitution and free speech measures that would nullify Turkey's Article 301). It seems now that AKP might be content to move forward with a set of amendments to the current constitution instead of waiting to include it in a larger debate of its new constitutional draft. Today's Zaman quotes Salih Kapisuz,former deputy chairman of AKP's parliamentary committee, as saying that MHP's cooperation on the headscarf issue will make it easier to
"to implement the constitutional amendments. There were several critical issues that have been tangling up the drafting process. The headscarf issue was one of them. All political parties may eventually arrive at an agreement over other amendments to the constitution."
MHP is likely eager to see the headscarf issue dealt with now rather than risk it being used as political capital for AKP once debate on the new constitution commences. It also seeks to gain political capital from those voters who support lifting the ban. Also quoted in Today's Zaman is MHP deputy chairman Tunca Toskay: “It is our intention that the headscarf issue be solved before the drafting of the new constitution. We will not allow them to stir public opinion by mixing the headscarf issue with the new constitution.”

In order to work with MHP and consider what steps might be taken next, AKP has put together a joint commission with members of MHP in which possible amendments to the Constitution might be further studied. MHP proposes that the issue can be solved by amending Article 10 of the constitution to equally guarantee the rights of all citizens to state services. AKP is skeptical that such an amendment will be sufficient to affirm any right of covered women to attend university and have suggested that an amendment to Article 10 might be coupled with an amendment to Article 42 pertaining to rights to education. If an amendment is to be made to the constitution, it will be necessary for AKP to procure MHP's support. With only 340 members in the Parliament, it will need 367 to amend the constitution.

To recap on the events of the week that have catapulted the headscarf into the thrust of today's political discourse and deal-making, news started being made after Prime Minister Erdoğan addressed a UN forum in Madrid on January 15. Before the commencement of a set of talks on dealing with cultural differences at the Alliance of Civilizations meeting, Erdoğan talked of the state's headscarf ban as a limit on freedom of expression and a contradiction of Turkey's liberal democratic values. Most significantly, he stated that even if the türban was worn as a political symbol, this still does not mollify the injustice inherent in the ban. Quoted in Zaman, Erdoğan argued, "Even if it is worn as a political symbol, can you consider wearing it as a political symbol a crime? Can you bring in a ban on symbols?"

The response was almost immediate. CHP leader Deniz Baykal moved to denounce Erdoğan's words as irresponsible and re-asserted that Turkey has no problem with the headscarf, but only with it being worn as political symbol. The logic of this argument is explained somewhat above and is, of course, very particular to the Turkish case and the political mind of rigid secularists like Baykal. After the announcement, Chief Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya, responded that the headscarf was against the "secular and unitary structure of Turkey," a warning that AKP will not take lightly as it draws up plans to move forward. To follow up Yalçınkaya, the Council of State issued another somber warning on Friday via its website declaring that the ban was necessary to Turkey's secular political heritage and that its lifting would create instability and possibly erode into other areas of public space. Again, this sort of slippery slope argument is quite common among members of the secular establishment who fear Islam's extension into the public realm.

This Saturday, the issue appeared in the New York Times.

No comments: